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DON'T SAY A WORD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Famke Janssen, Sean Bean, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Jennifer Esposito, Oliver Platt
Director:  Gary Fleder
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  February 19, 2002

“I’ll never tell…”

Film **  

It occurred to me maybe for the first time while watching the opening sequence of Don’t Say a Word how capitalistic crime has become in the movies.  The old adage that it takes money to make money seems to apply more and more.  When a group of thieves led by Patrick Koster (Bean) break into a bank, they do so with tremendous firepower and technological equipment, including a computer interface to break the vault code.  All of this to lift a single ruby.  It kind of makes you miss the days of Bonnie and Clyde, whose methods were more straightforward and more charming.

Don’t Say a Word is not a terrible movie, but awfully familiar.  Well-off loving family getting thrown into chaos by a kidnapping?  One can easily think of Frantic, Ransom…even one segment from Michael Douglas’ own Fatal Attraction comes to mind.

Douglas always seems to return to comfortable ground after demonstrating his mettle as an actor.  He almost seems to invite us to forget his terrific turn in Wonder Boys to remember the kind of role he’s played numerous times in his career…the average man whose circumstances force him to go to extremes.

In this film, he plays psychiatrist Nathan Conrad, who makes the mistake of seeing a new young patient, Elisabeth (Murphy) on the eve of Thanksgiving.  This girl is given a rather weak attempt at a Hannibal Lecter-like set-up, with descriptions of her taking on five orderlies at once and doing considerable damage.   (I’m no doctor, but my first guess would have been PCP…but then, we’d wouldn’t have a story.)

It turns out, Elisabeth is strangely connected to the events of the opening sequence, which took place ten years earlier.  She has some kind of number in her head that Patrick wants…and to get it, he kidnaps Nathan’s daughter Jessie (Bartusiak) and gives him a 5 PM deadline to extract the info from Elisabeth in order to save his daughter’s life.

A fair enough outline, with the added nice touch that Patrick and his crew are actually in a position to watch Nathan and his wife (Janssen) as the events unfold.  But things get unnecessarily complicated when you throw in that Nathan’s friend Dr. Sachs (the always good Platt) has his own agenda, and the appearance of a police detective Cassidy (Esposito) who stumbles into the crime while investigating another.

It’s not hard to follow, but it detracts from the central storyline, which is Nathan and Elisabeth.  Ms. Murphy turns in, I think, a considerable performance…I say “I think” because we didn’t get as close to her as I would have liked.  As in most films of this nature, her mental illness is merely a plot device…no real attention is paid to it, and it has become VERY hard for me to go back to a movie like this after seeing a picture like A Beautiful Mind.

Even more damaging structurally is a wonderfully crafted piece of suspense that takes place a bit after the one hour mark…multiple storylines are intercut as they rise to their individual climaxes simultaneously, a la D. W. Griffith.  It works to perfection, but the problem is, there’s still a lot of movie left to go, and nothing else the picture has left compares with that sequence.  There is supposed to be a “real” climax at the end, but it’s a letdown…consider the last half hour to 45 minutes the longest dénouement you’ve ever seen.

Director Gary Fleder does as much as he can with the material, and to be sure, it’s not his fault that the story is so familiar that we don’t experience suspense so much as we wait for the inevitable outcome.  Don’t Say a Word is a mildly diverting piece, but not one that will be remembered.

Video ***

This is a decent but imperfect anamorphic offering from Fox.  It features good coloring throughout and good presentations of Fleder’s sometimes deliberate schemes, but overall, the images were just a tad soft throughout.  It’s slightly noticeable during brightly lit scenes, but even more so in darker ones, where, despite the absence of grain, there is a bit of a hazy look and some drop in definition.  These aren’t so apparent as to make the viewing experience a bad one, but it’s certainly not up to par with Fox’s usual standards.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is a decent offering, and is most noticeably used to open up the orchestration of the music across all channels.  Despite a few action oriented sequences, this is a picture driven by dialogue, which is always clearly presented.  Dynamic range is strong in a few spots, and use of the .1 channel is intermittent but effective.

Features ***

There is a features problem I should address right off the bat…included on the disc is a set of scene specific commentaries by the actors; two each for Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Famke Jenssen, Brittany Murphy and Oliver Platt.  You select which one you want, and the disc takes you right to them.  A good feature, right?  The problem is, after you watch one, you can’t watch another.  The disc defaults back to the 5.1 soundtrack instead of the actor’s commentary, and you CAN’T change the audio track with your remote control!  The only way to make it work is to completely eject and re-insert the disc, meaning you have to go through Fox’s warning screens and everything else again.  Select a different track, and you can hear it…but only that one.  I don’t know why the studio chose to lock out on-the-fly audio switching, but it rendered what might have been a good extra completely worthless…I lost patience after listening to three of the five.

There is a full length commentary with director Gary Fleder.  There are four deleted scenes, a short production featurette, a trailer for Wall Street instead of this movie, some talent files, and a cinema school series of extras that includes Brittany Murphy’s screen test, an interview with the producers on what producing is, screening room dailies, plus items on scoring, visiting the set, and storyboards.

Summary:

Don’t Say a Word is so familiar in territory that you won’t need a map to lead you from point A to point B.  Despite the presence of a good cast and a promising central premise, both suffer too much under the weight of convention to really come to fruition.